Go window shopping. Like actually go look at window displays! I like looking at displays built around a holiday or just the changing of the seasons. Looking at store websites doesn’t compare to specially prepared storefronts.
The Lady of the Rivers, by Philippa Gregory, is the first of her Plantagenet and Tudor novels, and it follows Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Countess Rivers and covers the reign of the (quite inept) Lancastrian King Henry VI. (For those unfamiliar with Philippa Gregory, she writes historical fiction, usually set in England, charting the rise and fall of different powerful women.) Jacquetta of Luxembourg (1415 – 1472) was born in what is now France, and what was, in the 1400s, English occupied France. One of the most striking things in the first part of the book, set in France in the 1430s, was the description of the gowns.
Joan laughs at me, as I have to duck my head to get my tall conical headdress through the narrow doorways.
“It is very beautiful,” she says. “But I should not like to wear such a thing.”
I pause and twirl before her in the bright sunlight from the arrow slit. The colors of my gown are brilliant: a skirt of dark blue and an underskirt of sharper turquoise, the skirts flaring from the high belt tied tight on my rib cage. The high henin headdress sits like a cone on my head and sprouts a veil of pale blue from the peak that drops down my back, concealing and enhancing my fair hair. I spread my arms to show the big triangular sleeves, trimmed with the most beautiful embroidery in gold thread, and I lift the hem to show my scarlet slippers with the upturned toes.
What is a henin, you might ask? According to Wikipedia, “the most extravagant headdress of Burgundian fashion is the hennin, a cone or truncated-cone shaped cap with a wire frame covered in fabric and topped by a floating veil. Later hennins feature a turned-back brim, or are worn over a hood with a turned-back brim. Towards the end of the 15th century women’s head-dresses became smaller, more convenient, and less picturesque.” In other words, a hennin is the cone princess hat that you may remember drawing as a child – my cartoon princesses all had a cone hat with a frilly veil, did yours?
Conical hennins first appeared around 1430, which is where The Lady of the Rivers picks up as well. The veil that flows out of the hennin is called a “cointoise” and could be long enough to fall to a woman’s shoulders, or even all the way to the floor. It was fashionable at the time to shave the forehead to raise the hairline, and to tightly tie up the hair into the hennin, so that it did not appear visible at all.
This is not how Philippa Gregory describes the hennin, but she may have decided that her description is a lot more picturesque, set against a mass of blonde wavy hair, to modern readers. There was often a “frontlet” or a small loop on the front of the hennin, resting on the forehead, which may have been used to easily adjust the hennin or to help keep the hennin in place. You can see an example in the picture above, which is a portrait of Margaret of York, the duchess of Burgundy.
Hennins were worn at an angle, about 45 degrees tilted against the back of the head, and the hennins varied in height. One source says the higher the rank of the wearer, the higher the hennin was, with some measuring over forty-five inches — that’s almost four feet high! Later, ladies started wearing crowns around their hennins as well, and experimenting with different ways to fold the veils and display fabric on the sides of the hennins as well.
The Store is the second book in T. S. Stribling’s Vaiden Trilogy. I originally thought I’d try to read the first book too, but I had enough trouble getting on my hands on a copy of this book, that I gave up hope trying to find two Stribling novels! I ultimately was able to borrow a copy of this book from the University of Alabama library, thanks to my dad’s academic credentials there. In full disclosure, I finished this book years ago, but have taken a little break from writing here (didja miss me?)
A Brief Summary: The Store follows Miltiades Vaiden as he reckons with a changing racial and economic landscape. Post Civil War, Vaiden finds himself trying to “find his way” as he loses his job as an overseer of a plantation. The novel is ambitious and covers many hallmarks of Southern life in the 1880s – property disputes, “passing“, the Klan, and an underlying current of racially charged condescension and power dynamics prevail.
Setting: Florence, Alabama
Time Period: 1880s
Fun Fact: T.S. Stribling was the first Tennesseean to win a Pulitzer Prize (although Alabama also likes to take credit for him).
My Thoughts: One thing that struck me about the book was how aware Vaiden was of the power dynamics between Black and white people. He knows that the Black woman that he repeatedly rapes and abuses does not love him, and yet, even though he knows she is powerless to deny him, he turns to her for affection and to confide in her. Some readers may find the book hard to swallow due to interactions like that, or the constant racial slurs and racist remarks throughout the book. And yet, others may defend this as an accurate depiction of the 1880s. I wonder if reading this book when it was published in the 1930s was a very different experience than reading it in now, in the 2020s. While Stribling’s name has faded from the headlines and is now a pretty obscure author, I found this quote (from Wikipedia) which addresses Stribling’s legacy:
“Though not great literary art, Stribling’s trilogy is, nevertheless, historically significant; for in The Forge, The Store, and Unfinished Cathedral, Stribling introduced a subject matter, themes, plot elements, and character types which parallel and at the same time anticipate those that William Faulkner, who owned copies of this trilogy, would treat in Absalom, Absalom! and in the Snopes trilogy.”
James J. Martine, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume Nine
I haven’t read Absalom, Absalom! yet, although it is on my shelf. I am curious to see the ways that I see Stribling’s work reflected in Faulkner’s.
I would recommend this book to people who are currently thinking about race — the ways in which progress has been made since the 1880s and the ways in which things are very much the same; to people who, like me, love to read books set in the South and, in particular, in Alabama; to people who don’t mind reading about flawed and infuriating characters.
Ye examined Feng. The kerosene lamp was a wonderful artist and created a classical painting with dignified colors and bright strokes: Feng had her coat draped over her shoulders exposing her red belly-band and a strong, graceful arm. The glow from the kerosene lamp painted her figure with vivid, warm colors, while the rest of the room dissolved into a gentle darkness. Close attention revealed a dim red glow, which didn’t come from the kerosene lamp, but from the heating charcoal on the ground. The cold air outside sculpted beautiful ice patterns on the windowpanes with the room’s warm, humid air.
The Three Body Problem, by Ken Liu
Something a little different this time from the usual painting & poetry pairings. Sometimes a paragraph from a novel has the same striking imagery that has me reaching for my notebook.
I feel like Helen Oyeyemi‘s work is often described as playful, and Mr. Fox is certainly a collection of games tied in with fairy tales. Suggested related activities:
Following Mary Foxe, make a list of experiences that are memorable to you or that you still want to experience.
She wanted to experience things; she had a list. She planned to attend a big band concert, and she planned to walk through a field of yellow rapeseed, and she planned to get an injection, and anything else I might recommend.
Browse upscale dining restaurant menus. Maybe when the pandemic is over I will actually go to one of these restaurants for dinner, but until then… I do like a good menu.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a great summer book. It follows Kya who lives alone in the marshes along the coast of North Carolina. Here are some activities I thought would be fun for the book. Tell me if you’ve read the book and have any other things in mind.
Go birdwatching. Even if you can’t go anywhere, you can try to identify the birds in your neighborhood. Audobon has a phone app for this! Bonus points if you have binoculars.
Visit a marsh. If you can go to one, then pack a little picnic (see more below) and make a day of it. A friend and I put on our masks and visited the freshwater marsh of the Ballona Wetlands. If you live in west LA, I recommend going. We saw some cool birds (including a great egret!) and it was overall really nice and beautiful.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: if you want more southern lit from a female author. Bonus, it also involves a courtroom scene.
The Bird Artist by Howard Norman: if you want another protagonist who lives in a remote place and paint birds
“Bog Girl” by Karen Russell: another female author from the south. A short story set in similar environment, but that’s about where the similarities stop.
I saved this section for last because it is the longest. All the food in the book sounds dang good! Here is the menu I would put together from all the dishes mentioned. Choose one or two items from each category for a great picnic!
Basket of breads cracklin cornbread hush puppies (serve with honey butter) yeast rolls sour cream biscuits (add bacon or jam)
Sides beans: red, butter, or baked grits hoe cakes deviled eggs chicken salad mashed potatoes with red eye gravy black eyed peas
Veggies corn fritters stewed turnips collard greens peas in butter sliced red tomato mustard greens coleslaw summer squash casserole
Entree pimento cheese sandwich backbone soup + biscuits chicken pie chicken and dumplings cold fried chicken chicken fried steak fried pork chops fried shrimp fried fish with black pepper crust grilled flounder stuffed with shrimp seafood medley: mussels, oysters ham trio: salt-cured, molasses, and fried hot pork sausage
Dessert banana pudding peach cobbler blackberry pie blackberry cobber pecan pie 4-layer cake top any with a scoop of ice cream or hard cream
By the time you finish “A Brief History of Seven Killings in Jamaica” by Marlon James, you will feel like you have really gone on a journey. This book is not really an easy summer camp kind of book, but it is the book I was reading when I thought to myself, well, I have two more months of summer (school doesn’t start until October on the quarter system) and ??? more months of social distancing. Am I revisiting old hobbies and thinking fondly of better times during Covid times? Yes.
Here are the additional activities I did along/after reading the novel. Comment if you have any ideas to add 🙂
Jerk chicken! I ordered from a local restaurant (Janga) and got jerk chicken and an appetizer combo (fried zucchini, jerk wings, plantains, and fried shrimp).
Accompany all this good food with an iced hibiscus tea.
A Massacre in Jamaica (Mattathias Schwartz, The New Yorker, 2011) The actual events that occurred after a certain Jamaican drug lord was extradited. It’s a good read.
We have recently been enjoying Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, on audiobook. This is the first time that we’ve actually read (or listened to) the same book at the same time, and it’s been such a juicy, hilarious and infuriating book to discuss. I found myself making up haiku about the various courtiers in Henry VIII’s court, and Kimberly was kind enough to humor me. Here’s the best two that we came up with:
When I was younger, I had a “type” – I dated aspiring blanks. Aspiring artists, aspiring musicians – all unconcerned with mundane, earthly questions like how to get money for rent, drinks, and drugs. Instead, they were already living with an eye on posterity, assuming every word they said was going to be quoted someday. Have you ever spoken to someone who thinks everything he says is worth quoting? Take it from me, it’s absolutely exhausting, and you’ll most likely walk away wondering, “What did we even talk about?”
This is all a roundabout way of saying Ethan Hawke’s biopic Blaze reminded me of every boy I dated in my early twenties. For those who don’t know, Blaze Foley was a Texan country singer songwriter in the 1970s. Ethan Hawke’s version is a bigger, larger than life man (played by newbie Ben Dickey who is literally a good fifty pounds heavier than the true Foley) who says he doesn’t want to be famous; he wants to be a legend. And yet we spend two hours watching him flounder on his journey to becoming a legend. The movie starts in a circular fashion, we see both Foley falling in love with his future wife, Sybil Rosen (played by the charming Alia Shawkat) and his friends wrestling with the aftermath of Foley’s death on the air in a radio interview (with radio host Ethan Hawke, no less). Rosen is Foley’s muse and biggest supporter. She blindly fangirls him and believes in him. And so, of course, he leaves her to pursue the rock star lifestyle of drinking too much with his musician friends and being yelled at by his record label. In the radio interview, Van Zandt justifies this by explaining just how much you have to be willing to give up to make it as a musician. But what Van Zandt sees as strength and discipline comes off as a succumbence to vices on Foley. Foley talks a big talk, mumbling on and on about the cosmos, energy, and inspiration, but we mostly watch him, and the movie, stumbling.
Maybe the problem with the movie is that both Hawke and Rosen have rose-colored glasses on. The movie is an adaptation of Rosen’s memoir, “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze”, and Rosen and Hawke wrote the screenplay together. The film makes it clear that both Hawke and Rosen truly loved Foley, but it doesn’t quite do enough to make the viewer feel the same. The best part of the movie is the music. Dickey is more musician than actor and his husky voice commands your attention. While the movie doesn’t quite convince me that Blaze Foley was indeed a legend, it’s worth watching, if only just to serve as a reminder that making art and music is hard work and requires more than big dreams and quotable nonsense.
Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze on Amazon